Here is the doorway into these stories,
at least the entryway I found.
I have a chronic illness I do not like to talk about.
In fact, this may be the first time
I have ever spoken about it publicly.
Now the thing about a chronic illness
is that it’s always with you.
Most of us have one
or will have one sometime in our lives.
And with the proliferation
of pharmaceutical treatments for illnesses
that can be treated but not cured,
I suspect more and more of us
will be living longer and longer
with a chronic illness or two or three.
I know for a fact
that living with a chronic condition
is made more difficult when it is secret
or there is some kind of stigma associated with it.
That is the case with substance abuse,
as well as co-dependency that haunts
the family members of the substance abuser.
Fortunately that stigma is becoming less and less
as it becomes clear that more and more people
are touched by the chronic disease
of alcoholism or drug addiction.
But that is not the chronic condition
I keep to myself.
Rather, I have peripheral neuropathy in my feet.
All that means is that I don’t have much feeling left on the bottom of my feet.
This is a condition
that can be associated with diabetes
which I do not have.
It can also be caused by traumatic injury,
infections, exposure to toxins,
or just plain inherited.
I have no idea which one is the source of mine.
It is nothing to be ashamed of
but I am loathe to speak of it –
and as I said, this is the first time
in the twelve years or so that I’ve had it,
that I have spoken about it publicly.
Hiding things, keeping them secret,
for good or bad or silly reasons,
makes the hidden thing more powerful.
The power of hidden things
is the ability to isolate.
When we have a secret
and we do not want the people around us
to know about it,
it forms a layer of distance around us –
we grow a second skin so to speak,
only it is dead skin
that human touch cannot penetrate.
You see the problem.
Usually the thing we keep secret
or hide away and do not discuss
or expose to the open,
is the very thing
for which we need tender loving care.
But we can’t get it
because the secret
or the hiddenness
does not allow touch to penetrate.
I suspect the hiddenness
in which I hide my neuropathy
is because I do not like being vulnerable,
and I do not like feeling limited
and I hate feeling diminished in any way
and so not talking about it
keeps me from having to reconcile with it.
It is the kind of thing that doctors can’t fix.
It is a chronic condition,
one of those things that pharmaceuticals
can treat but not cure.
But in my case,
because I have no pain with this condition
while some people really do,
the potential side effects of the treatment
are far worse than the numbness.
But like I said,
I’m betting that most people sitting here today
have some kind of chronic condition.
It may not even have a name
or be physical:
fits of rage or anger,
bad hair days…you name it.
I only mention it
as a way to get inside this story Mark tells.
The woman with the twelve-year hemorrhage
is the Poster Child for chronic illness.
But her social isolation
is more severe than any that most of us
will ever know.
She has so many strikes against her.
In that society,
in that culture
and in that moment of history
to be a woman
was to be totally vulnerable.
If you were an unmarried woman
without a family
you were destitute.
No social safety net.
You were nothing.
Now we do not know anything
about this woman
other than her chronic condition.
The fact that we don’t even know her name
and that we DO know Jairus’ name,
tells us what we need to know about this story.
Jairus was the leader of the congregation –
he had status.
As a male he had more status
than the nameless woman would ever have
but add to it that he was
the leader of the congregation
and so he had enormous status.
His name was so meaningful
that Mark thought it important
to remember him by name.
This was Jairus, not some nameless nobody!
This was a woman hemorrhaging blood
for crying out loud –
she was a nameless nobody!
The contrast could not be clearer.
The nameless woman –
just think about namelessness for a moment –
and the man remembered by name for 2000 years.
So this woman, even if she were married,
had probably been abandoned
because not only was she considered unclean
as the result of her chronic condition,
but she made everyone around her unclean.
To sit in the same chair she had been sitting in,
or even on the same spot in the grass
where she had been sitting,
was to make someone else unclean.
No one could touch her
without being made unclean.
Literally, she was untouchable.
Remember what I said about isolation –
how it makes touch from others
Remember how it feels
to be untouchable – to wrap yourself in a secret
that numbs you to the touch of others?
In her case, while she likely suffered
a high degree of self-loathing
because of her condition,
she was also forcibly placed on the margin
by everyone else’s loathing as well.
She was untouchable.
She was nameless.
She was nothing.
So I had to tell you about my neuropathy
to gain a little access to this story –
to the twelve-year hemorrhage
that made her untouchable.
The miracle aspect of it was getting in my way
and so I needed to touch my own vulnerabilities.
Maybe it helps you do it too – I hope so.
Jairus’ situation is much easier for me to touch.
One beautiful September day
as I was leaving the Jewish Community Center
in Buffalo, New York,
my cellphone rang.
It was the voice of a stranger.
A woman’s voice; a very nice voice
but I could tell she was giving me news
I did not want to hear.
She was a nurse
in the trauma center
in a Philadelphia hospital.
My oldest child lived in Philadelphia.
It took a nanosecond for my blood to run cold.
There had been an accident.
It is a story with a happy ending
because it ended in recovery
from what could have been a life-ending accident.
I know there are many many people in this world,
some of them right here,
for whom there was not a happy ending
to a phone call like that.
It is the kind of moment
that turns us old inside;
turns us old in an instant
when our blood runs cold.
Jairus’ blood was turning cold,
was making him old inside
with each ticking second
that his twelve-year old daughter
struggled for breath.
The pain and anguish,
the abject suffering
of Jairus and the nameless woman
are too hot to touch
for any of us
that have ever known the terror,
and the pain
If we hear this story
in the color of blood
that runs through our own lives
it is almost too painful to touch.
If we take the wraps off our own secrets
and pull the skin away
from our own hidden wounds,
we will feel the touch of this story.
The touch of this story
takes place at the intersection
and the nameless woman.
The place THEY touch
is the placed that touches us.
Just imagine the panic in Jairus
as he hurries with Jesus toward his daughter?
Just imagine the anguish of Jairus
when Jesus stops.
“What?” Jairus turns around bewildered.
“What? What are you doing, Jesus? My little girl,
she’s dying. Please, please, we must hurry.”
He looks around in the crowded street
to find the nameless woman
who has touched him deeply
and who he, without intention, has touched.
It would be easy to pick on and judge Jairus
because he is the 1%
and the nameless woman
is the 1% on the other extreme.
But in all fairness to Jairus
he is desperate,
desperately in love with his little girl
and fearful beyond words.
Just imagine the scene of that wreck
where two awful anguishes meet
Your anguish and mine…touch at this altar.
You bring your anguish here,
at least I hope you do,
and walk it up to Communion
where it meets with my anguish
and together we share
the bread of affliction
that is the same bread
our ancestor have eaten.
I cannot take away your anguish
and you cannot end mine – we are not Jesus.
But I can allow you to touch me,
and you can invite me to touch you.
We can remove the second skin
we wrap ourselves in
if it feels safe to do so.
The wounds that hurt the most are chronic.
They can be treated but not cured.
But the only way they can be treated
is by touch –
allowing others to touch them
with their own wounds
and with the loving-kindness
born of shared woundedness,
which we call compassion.
In my mind that is what “church” is about.
Many imagine that church is somehow
supposed to fix the wrongs of society
or convey the right beliefs of religion.
But I don’t think so.
In my life,
when and where “church” has been powerful
is where it has been healing.
In the touching and being touched
our chronic wounds and illnesses
are made tolerable
and then our compassion
in new and ever-increasing ways.
And then we can do some really big things.
But it all begins,
that we touch
and be touched.